Title: Instruction concerning forgiveness part 1
Scriptures to Read: Matthew 18:15-20
Notice the reference to the church here. This is the second time the word ecclesia or church has been used in the gospels. We came across its first use after Peter declared to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the son of the God, the living one.” Jesus told him “you are petros and on this petra I will build My church.” And there Jesus was speaking of the universal church which He will build on the foundation of His Messiahship. Here in this passage He is referring to the local church.
What is Jesus describing in this passage? He describes the procedure to be used for church discipline in a situation where one brother offends, or sins against, another. When the issue is a moral sin there is a different response beyond what Jesus is talking about here. Elders have authority to deal with a moral sin, as Paul does in the Corinthian church with the one who is involved in gross sexual immorality. This is found in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.
Jesus teaches four stages regarding local church discipline.
1. It is the responsibility of the offended person to confront the offender privately. If he talks to anyone else in advance then he has already broken the principle.
2. If there is no response, take one or two more witnesses. So there will be a total of 2 or 3 witnesses.
3. If there is still no response tell the problem to the church.
4. If there is still no response, the offender is to be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector.
What does it mean to treat someone as a Gentile and a tax collector? In a Jewish context, to be as a Gentile and a tax collector means to be untouchable. It means to be excommunicated from the assembly. And so the church has the authority to excommunicate the offender from the assembly. This is demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Paul says: “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” This means that the person is put back under Satan’s authority for the destruction of the flesh. As a general rule Satan has no authority of physical death over believers. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 reminds us that believers fall asleep or die through Jesus, that is, Jesus is the one who brings about the believer’s death. That is the normal situation, but there is one exception to the rule. If a believer has been excommunicated, he has been put back under the authority of Satan and then Satan has the authority to put him to physical death. When someone believes in Jesus he is transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Light, out of Satan’s kingdom into God’s kingdom. And consequently Satan no longer has authority over him. However, if he is excommunicated, Satan is given authority to put him to death physically, but only physically.
Sin unto death
This is what John refers to in 1 John 5:15-16 as the sin leading to death that a believer commits. The sin leading to death is whatever sin caused him to be removed from the local fellowship.
Judgement recognised in heaven
Verse 18 is often quoted by people speaking about spiritual warfare, but the binding and loosing here have nothing to do with spiritual warfare. As we saw earlier, when used in a judicial sense, as is the case here “to bind” and “to loose” mean “to punish” and “to not punish”. The church has the judicial authority to order excommunication, and, if the church does it correctly, the excommunication order will be recognized by heaven. And therefore heaven will consequently allow Satan to put this believer to death.
Verse 19 is also commonly misused by Christians. It is taken out of context to teach a principle of prayer: that if two believers ask the Lord for anything He will do it. But the context here is church discipline, not prayer. The two or three of verse 19 is the same two or three of verse 16. They are the two witnesses at whose testimony the church passed the excommunication order. So Jesus is saying that the judgments made on the basis of two or three agreeing witnesses will be carried out by God the Father. If someone is excommunicated as a result of agreeing witnesses God will allow Satan to put him to death.
Jesus verifies their testimony
Likewise, verse 20 is not meant to be a definition of what a church is, although people have used it that way. When you have two or three believers gathered together, what you have is two or three believers gathered together. You don’t have a local church. A local church is more complex than two or three people – a biblical church has elders, deacons, and it is organised with lines of authority and things of that nature. Again the two or three of verse 20 are the same two or three of verse 19 and verse 16. They are the same two or three witnesses at whose testimony the church excommunicates the sinning brother. And Jesus is there, right in their midst, verifying their testimony, which is why God can permit Satan to put the offender to death.
So, having considered all of this, let’s put these three verses together in one sentence: Jesus is saying that the judicial decisions of the church to excommunicate an unrepentant brother:
1. are recognized in heaven, and,
2. if they are correctly made on the basis of two or three witnesses they will be carried out by His Father in heaven,
3. because the testimony of the witnesses is verified by Jesus Himself.